Working in Nicaragua with Women’s Cooperatives

PictureI would like to thank Worldwide Shelters for their generous support in these projects. Their donation has enabled me to return to these communities with two assistants and continue to share, inspire, be humbled, teach, and learn. For this opportunity I am extremely grateful.

In this blog entry I am excited to introduce the women’s groups we will be working with for the next  months on two community building projects.

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Nicaragua has a patriarchal and machismo culture that often causes women to fall into the traditional role of raising children, solely performing domestic tasks, and providing for their families. In the more rural regions, this is often a full time role, collecting wood for cooking, hauling water to their homes, washing clothes by hand, cleaning house and yard, and cooking. With the attitudes of a machismo culture, the lack of incentive to stay in school and lack of economic resource to move beyond primary school, and a high unemployment rate (80% live below poverty level in unsuitable conditions), the women often have children in their teens. There is little to build their esteem or supportive situations providing incentive to do something less conventional. The two organizations I am working with in the northern region are doing amazing work in raising awareness for women and youth in general, in living more fulfilling lives and discovering ways to create opportunities for themselves within their rural communities. The recent changes in a place like this, may at times seem subtle to a outsider, with all our privilege and ability to choose from so many possibilities, but the impact here is huge and obvious once you spend some time and experience the more obvious disparity between women who have been able to take advantage of these opportunities and those who haven’t.

Both groups are doing wonderful work to support the youth of rural communities towards being more empowered and active citizens. One in learning and applying the use of renewable energies within there community, and the other focusing on non traditional skill building for women and increased awareness of body rights and sexual education.


natural building in Nicaragua

Returning to Sabana Grande

Last year I had the opportunity to work in the community of Sabana Grande, a pueblo of Totogalpa, about 20 km from the Honduran border. This is the poorest region of Nicaragua in the second poorest country in Latin America. Most everyone here lives well below poverty level. The people are kind and care for their families and community and are excited, in this particular community, for the growing application of renewable resources.  The renewables allow this very poor community to attain a higher quality of life while living within the limitations of their immediate environment. I worked with Grupo Fenix, Las Mujeres Solares, and La Montana Solar. We trained several women from the community to build with local natural resources in their raw form and they now have a ‘‘natural classroom”, which they are inspired by and proud of. I choose to introduce many techniques and support their more indigenous knowledge of building with adobe. They refer to these new techniques as modern natural building and are proud to have built some natural and modern (and cheap!). They have a very serious reality of severe deforestation followed by hurricane induced landslides, floods and droughts, leading to crop failures and malnutrition. And there are other unsustainable agricultural practices continually introduced to the region by outside international interests. You can’t throw a stone there without hitting a small billboard boosting the good deeds of some international aid project, with the endorsement of a corporate sponsored agricultural plan. READ: seeds and pesticides supplied by international aid programs. So for this community to have rooted and grown a solar cooperative and an organic farming and reforesting program with so little funding is quite amazing! You can read more about the project last year in my previous blogs.This year, in Feb 2013, (hey, you can still sign up and join us!) I will be leading a 2 week workshop in which we will build a round adobe youth center. I have two women assistants, budding natural builders from the US and Austria, to support the project and learn more about the culture and natural building. We will be joined again this year by the same team we trained last year and they will continue to learn the skills. We are using their traditional materials but introducing a round and sculptural building, that will support the youth in having a learning center.

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school girls in rural community of Sabana Grande

 

The public schools are limited in what they can offer within the very low funding for public education in this country. What I have seen so far is quite heartbreaking. Most schools don’t even have books. The days are short and though there is a growing number of primary school and secondary school graduates in some regions, there is very little access to higher learning or any extracurricular activities. This project will support the youth in creating cottage industries, like a bike rental cooperative, supported by a grant from the Canadian organization Falls Brook Institute. It will allow them to organize education and awareness classes around environmental concerns for the area; everything from littering and the impact due to the high increase in plastic to the country, to the devastation of erosion and loss of topsoil in the region an how to begin to correct the situation. There will be opportunity for nutrition and wellness and parenting classes. It is an investment in the future citizens of this region and continues to expose them to gringos who are interested in their culture as well as sharing some of the more positive knowledge available from theirs. I say that because this is not a region where tourists come passing by. The gringos who show up are volunteers here to share and learn about renewable energy and live within the community for their time there. There are no showers or internet or cars and such.

I met a Peace Corp worker the other day who was visiting Sabana Grande. She lived in the community over ten years ago and organized a weekly young women’s group, where they discussed women’s roles and what these young women perceived those to be. The other day she shared with me how pleased she was to see some of the women, grown now and running the Solar cooperative, going a very different route than the roles they had written down for themselves twelve years ago. They are now having meetings, running the solar restaurant, taking part in organizing the Solar Culture course, identifying other possible cottage industries such as the solar roasted coffee,  and planning for a future for themselves and for their children. Their children, particularly the girls are being encouraged to finish school and imagine a future with more options and opportunities. Six of the Solar Women graduated from the sixth grade last year and will continue on to receive a secondary school certification through two years of Sunday classes.


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The other group I am working with, Asociacion Mujeres Constructoras de Condega, is a women’s carpentry school in the town of Condega, serving young women from rural communities. These women train in non traditional trades such as carpentry and woodworking, welding and residential electricity installation. Another large and perhaps most important aspect of the program is sexual education and women’s body rights. I am posting some information from AMCC to most clearly share the realities of young women in Nicaragua, the mission of AMCC and the work they do.

 

Nicaragua’s fertility rate is one of the highest in the world and in Central America (4.4 children per woman), and has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Latin America, 40% of sexually active female teenagers have never used contraceptive methods. 42% of maternal deaths take place in women under 24 and 26% of abortions in those under 19. Abortion is currently illegal in Nicaragua under Ortega’s alliance with the Catholic church.
In spite of those statistics, most conservative sectors of society, mainly the catholic church and other religious sects, still have a big influence in State policy, making it more difficult to apply and uphold women’s sexual and reproductive rights, or even find health and education policies which are favorable to women and young people. (Marta Yllescas, PE 2007 – 11 pg. 7).

AMCC condemns this situation and focuses on a target group composed of young women who mainly come from the northern rural area of Nicaragua, and who generally share, the following characteristics:

 

1. Living in a patriarchal context: In a society where sex discrimination is prevalent and with a high number of teenage mothers, young women find real difficulties in breaking down traditional gender roles and, as a result, access other options in their lives.

2. Low self-esteem. Many youngsters have had personal traumas or have failed in the educative system.  In their personal lives, most women face gender discrimination in their families and communities, in educational centers or work places. In the educational field, some of them have interrupted their formal schooling: they repeat years or change schools due to migration for economic reasons, amongst others.

3. Restricted access and low quality education, due to the economic and political situation, poor infrastructure and little investment. The state’s budget for education decreases continuously, affecting not only the quality of education, but also young people’s general motivation.

4. Limited employment opportunities: Sweatshops, migration or under employment are the only options that can be found in the Nicaraguan labor market. Women’s economic resources are very low, which reinforces their dependency on others.

Also, AMCC works with adults in young people’s lives, such us parents, teachers and community leaders, in order to guarantee more support in involving them in AMCC activities and in their commitment to overcome different obstacles in their lives.

AMCC roots are in the fight for women rights and equality, in coordination with other organizations, groups and leaders related to feminist and women movements at national and international level.

AMCC considers it important that women especially the youngest ones and teenagers, have an early start in their process of coming out of the private sphere and the “safe” surrounding of their communities to break into the public field and relate with other people with similar motivations and personal, social and political interests.Reinforcement of self-esteem and self-confidence is a prerequisite so that women create a wider vision of both their individual and collective rights to allow them to achieve their full citizenship.

At the site of their school we will be building a cocina and kioska for the school providing a place to cook meals, eat and study in a beautiful environment built by the students and community members. I will be teaching different techniques, along with my assistants and un maestro from the school, a 23 year old engineering student Felipe, who is so excited to learn from me (and me from him!), support women in their empowerment and trades learning and is a sweetheart of a guy!


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And check out our exciting new US Women’s Building Apprenticeship at www.womensnaturalbuilding.com or on our upcoming events page.


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